There are two types of congregants: those who talk and those who shush. I’m a shusher. More specifically, I’m a recovering shusher. I’m trying to suppress the urge to shush because, honestly, it can do as much harm as good.
For some reason, talking in shul is a real hot-button issue. A number of years ago, a pamphlet was distributed to shuls that described in some vivid details the fires of Hell that await those who talk in shul. (I’m barely exaggerating when I say that!) Unsurprisingly, shushers loved this piece and talkers despised it with a passion.
Having written a large number of educational pamphlets over the years, and not exactly being the fire-and-brimstone type, I decided to write a pamphlet on this topic in my own style. When I showed it to colleagues for feedback, I received the following responses:
RABBI A: It’s too strong.
RABBI B: It’s not strong enough.
RABBI C: I defer to Rabbi D.
RABBI D: I don’t believe in pamphlets.
And so, this particular piece sits on my computer desktop for five years.
The problem with talker education is that the talkers know talking in shul is wrong; they just don’t care. Sometimes you get lucky and you shush someone who really does care and just slipped. For the most part, however, when you shush a talker, all you accomplish is creating a confrontation. This also leads to what I call “The Cycle of Shush.”
What’s The Cycle of Shush? You see, most people are human. As such, they tend to slip up from time to time. Even those who are generally careful not to talk in shul may make an occasional mistake. Talkers take great pleasure in shushing a shusher. What ends up happening is the shusher shushes the talker, the talker shushes the shusher, and you end up with an endless shush cycle of shushers shushing talkers shushing shushers. (While all this is going on, others are probably still talking.) Not only can shushing be as disturbing as talking, it becomes a game of one-upmanship. The shushers want to “win” so much that they’ve forgotten their original goal: to create an environment conducive to harmonious communal prayer. A shush-war can be many things, but harmonious it ain’t.
There are many reasons not to talk in shul. It’s disrespectful to G-d. It’s discourteous to others. It’s bad education for children. It defeats the purpose of going to shul in the first place. Shushers generally feel that they are standing up for the sanctity of the synagogue but if they know in advance that their actions are going to exacerbate the situation, a new course of action may be called for.
As a recovering shusher, I have modified my modus operandi. I no longer shush at the first sign of talking; I wait until it actually becomes a distraction to others. I try not to shush individuals, preferring instead to issue a quiet, general “shhhhh….” While talking is not permitted at any time during the service, I have learned to be more patient during, say, the “Keil Maleh” prayers on Shabbos afternoons than during Torah reading or the repetition of Shemoneh Esrei (which is the central prayer of the daily services). I don’t think that my more laid-back approach to shushing implies a tacit approval of some forms of talking, I think it’s merely a more realistic approach. If one chooses his battles, he may be taken more seriously than if he knee-jerk shushes at every syllable uttered by another.
I’m not saying that my personal approach is for everyone. Hopefully, shul rabbis and gabbaim will set appropriate tones for their congregations. (As an aside, too much down time in shul leads to talking. If the davening keeps moving, there will be less talking.) What I’m suggesting is that those who shush do so with common sense. “Shushing with seichel,” as it were. You can’t control everyone’s actions, but you can control your own. And, in a reversal of Hillel’s famous dictum, treat yourself as you would others. If you do slip up and talk, causing yourself to get shushed, accept it gracefully. Don’t enter into a Cycle of Shush.
If we’re aware of our own actions, we can break the Cycle of Shush, which can be as bad as the talking that inspired it. In this way, perhaps, we can help to improve the decorum of our synagogues and not inadvertently become a part of the problem we originally sought to resolve.
Following are some excerpts from Rabbi Jack’s unpublished pamphlet, “Shhhhhh…”
Talking in shul is not a new problem. Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller, author of the commentary on the Mishna called Tosafos Yom Tov, dealt with this situation in the 17th century. He attributed pogroms and other catastrophes of 1648 and 1649 to misconduct in the synagogue. In response, he encouraged people to be much more careful in this area and he composed a prayer for those who sincerely tried to be diligent.
Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim, asked why Rabbi Heller attributed these tragedies to talking in shul, out of all possible sins. In response, he cited the Mishna in Pirkei Avos (“Ethics of the Fathers”) that every mitzvah creates a “defense angel” and every sin creates a “prosecuting angel.” Other, seemingly “larger” sins are quiet, therefore their associated “prosecutors” are silent. Talking in shul is loud, so it creates a noisy prosecutor against us!
The Talmud cites the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael ben Elazar that one of the sins for which people die is treating the synagogue lightly. For example, they call it a “beis am” (a community center) and treat it like a place to gather socially, rather than for prayer and other holy purposes. (Brachos 32a)
A person is not permitted to carry on a general conversation (as opposed to words of Torah) in a synagogue even when it’s not time for prayer! The Mishnah Brurah says even conversation that is permitted elsewhere – such as business discussions – are not allowed in shul. Certainly forbidden speech, such as lashon hara (gossip) must be avoided at all times, especially in shul!
The Mishnah Brurah continues to tell us that gossip, slander and controversy – all bad enough on their own – are magnified in a holy place, such as a shul or a study hall. This is because it’s an affront to G-d’s honor. It’s one thing to have a fight with a friend – that’s bad enough. It’s worse to have a screaming match in the palace, in front of the King. (See Orach Chaim 151:1 and Mishnah Brurah there.)
The Mishnah Brurah further cautions us that we may not say Tehillim or even learn Torah during the repetition of the Amidah, even if we still say Amen at the end of the blessings. If we can’t learn Torah, which is a tremendous mitzvah, we certainly must be careful not to engage in idle chatter at this time! (Mishnah Brurah’s on Orach Chaim 124:4.)
When you’re at a different part of davening than the rest of the minyan, you can answer some responses, but not others. For example, we don’t answer “Baruch Hu u’baruch shmo” during Pesukei d’Zimra. We don’t answer “Amen” in the middle of the paragraphs from Barchu through the Amidah – and we don’t join in saying Shema even between those paragraphs! Even Kedusha isn’t answered between the bracha of go’al Yisroel and the Amidah!
If there are such limitations on when we can answer Kaddish, Barchu, Modim and other important tefillos, doesn’t it follow that there are even greater restrictions on saying things that are not part of the prayer service?
“A person may not engage in conversation during the repetition of the Amidah. If one speaks at this time, he sins, his sin is too great to bear, and he must be reprimanded.” (Orach Chaim 124:7)
“Woe to people who carry on conversations during prayer, for we have seen many synagogues destroyed because of this sin…” (Mishnah Brurah’s commentary on the above.)
Once the Torah reading has begun, a person may not speak – not even words of Torah, not even between the aliyos, not even if he already heard the Torah read… (Orach Chaim 146:2)
Even your shul can put a stop to the talking. Read about The Silent Revolution: How One Shul Put an End to Talking During Davening in Jewish Action, where a strong initiative created a dramatic shift in one of the largest Orthodox shuls in the tri-state area.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of five books, including The Tzniyus Book. His latest work, The Taryag Companion, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.